A few years ago, I started a painting about vampire bats. The end product looked like a psychedelic cartoon of pink gremlins in an apocalyptic candyland. I very quickly despised everything about it and rolled it up to be banished under the couch, a gift to the dust, never to be seen again.
Some days, my work flows through me like casual conversation. I make the right decisions without distinctly deciding anything at all. Then, there are the days, like with my vampire bats, when I look at my painting and see a complete stranger; where an intricately laid thin line turns into a lightning strike fracturing my piece in two, or a beautifully textured wash, that took hours, dissolves into a flat aimless smear. Or worse, when the meaning of my piece that seemed so thought-out does not come through at all, leaving a boring, random animal painting: vampire bats.
Wasted time, unaccomplished, distracted, unable, delusional, untalented, subpar — the negativity born from perceived “mistakes” can crumble the delicate momentum of the creative process.
When I come to these moments of frustration over my creative mistakes and I am reminded of Pandas — the bamboo-eating, cow-spotted, fat, fluffy, notoriously cute six-fingered bears. Yes, four fingers and two thumbs (one opposable like ours and one stagnant like other bears) for a total of six fingers. This funny little Panda fact baffled scientists for a long time, until a comprehensive study on Panda anatomy was done only to find out that one of the thumbs was not a thumb at all, but an extension of the wrist bone that had grown to be so big and muscular that it acted and moved like an opposable thumb.
Our own sacred opposable thumb that we hold at such high esteem as a distinctive trait in our dominance, was recreated by a Panda’s wrist bone so it can eat bamboo faster. Why did the Panda not evolve to make the already existing thumb, opposable? Why not evolve another thumb bone altogether? While it may go against all logic, the wrist-thumb works. And in times when I look at my work and the self critic in me gets up in arms, I have to remember the many paths to finding a viable solution.
Its not “the best”, “the worst”, “right” or “wrong”; its a non-stop, improvised process that flows slowly with time, stretching, struggling, and twisting down a jury-rigged path.
You may see a mutation, but give it time, and it could lead to best thing you’ve ever created.
My anger over the vampire bat painting is over. Yes, it is still rolled up, but in my studio now and I occasionally take it out and look at it with admiration. I think about it without a grimace on my face, considering each awkward brushstroke as a step that bridges my past work to my current and future work. We’ll all experience deviations, mess-ups, break-ups, regrettable words, and embarrassing paintings. These bumps in our lives can be disgraced as unwanted mutations, unorthodox and shameful, or be highlighted and accepted as a new change, a chance to evolve and create something greater.
So, the next time you feel you’re dealt a bad hand, there is a choice: pass, fold, or make an opposable thumb.